Photo credit: Ian Hobson
When I began writing Where the Dead Sit Talking
, I was thinking a lot about the ideas of displacement and identity among Native youth, particularly in the foster care system in Oklahoma. In some ways, I think, this novel is a sort of horror novel. The ambiguities surrounding Sequoyah’s obsessions and behavior are certainly alarming, as are the ambiguous behaviors surrounding most
teenagers who feel unwanted.
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But this is largely what drew me to his character and voice. I was a social worker for seven years. I worked with youth who were locked up for committing crimes and youth who were in the foster care system. I kept thinking about the way the system fails and continues to fail in that so many youth are shifted from foster home to youth shelter to a different foster home, back to the youth shelter, until eventually they end up on the street or leaving the state. Foster parents may simply decide the foster youth doesn’t work for them. Maybe the youth doesn’t follow rules. Or want to attend school. So, the foster parents call the social worker and say things aren’t working out, find a different placement. It’s incredibly sad.
Native youth feeling displaced is especially sad: alarming numbers of young Native women are kidnapped or disappear every year. Luckily there is the Indian Child Welfare Act, which at least allows Native youth to be placed in their communities/tribes, but the numbers are still disturbingly high. I was concerned about a failing system and what goes through the minds of youth who feel unwanted. Sequoyah is homeless until he is placed in a foster home, and he knows they could let him go any day. The displacement and feelings of loss and betrayal by the system go way back to the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokees and other tribes were removed from their land and forced to migrate west in arguably one of the worst events in U.S. history.
I have often been asked why the word “Death” is in the title. Look at the suffering in history. Look at the suffering among homeless youth in this country. I hope my book at least arouses discussion among these issues.
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earned a PhD in Creative Writing from Oklahoma State University and is the author, most recently, of the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking
, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award. His next novel will be published by Ecco/Harpercollins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at New Mexico State University and a Writing Mentor at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma.